Friday, November 21, 2014

Speed and quality mark the growth of SE Asia's infrastructure. Why are we where we are?

Only a few years ago Bangkok was Southeast Asia's most notorious city for traffic jams. It was common for parents to pick up their kids from school and, while the family vehicle tried to crawl along, give them a bucket wash, help them change into night clothes, go over homework, give them dinner and put them to sleep; the vehicle would still be crawling-stopping-crawling towards home.

Today flyovers crisscross the city in multiple layers. Sky-trains provide fast links to its far corners. Roads are in good condition. There is, as a consequence, a measure of traffic sense among motorists. The number of vehicles on the move is still scary, but those who knew the Bangkok of the 1970s and 80s would be amazed at the way the city has turned into an attractive, livable metropolis. Ditto with Kuala Lumpur. It was a village in the 1970s. It took Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed only about 20 years to make it the glittering capital it is today. Ditto with Jakarta.

The most interesting transformation currently under way is in Vietnam. The war ended only 40 years ago. Considering that extra-lethal chemical weapons were specially developed by America to destroy the earth and ecology of Vietnam, independence found the country poor. There are vast tracts of wasteland sarcastically called "Agent Orange museums" in memory of the death-dealing chemical that was extensively used by the US air force. Nevertheless, economic rebuilding has been progressing steadily. Massive infrastructure projects are under way with Japanese and Chinese assistance. Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) already looks like a New York or Tokyo.

To see the industriousness of the Vietnamese, one must go to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. A cross between Mumbai's Bhendi Bazaar and Delhi's Chandni Chowk, it is a cobweb of narrow streets through which, by some miracle, an unending flow of cars, buses, electric trailers, bicycles, scooters and more scooters, goods vehicles and rickshaws called cyclos cross one another's paths without knocking down any of the zigzagging locals, upcountry visitors, traders, hawkers and wonderstruck tourists. Every inch of the footpath is occupied, either by parked bikes, or pavement workshops, or stools of the city's fabled street-food eateries. Not a soul is idle. The Old Quarter is the heart throb of Hanoi.

But it is only a corner of the vast city. It's outside the Old Quarter that you begin to realise that Hanoi is a charming modern city, having retained the broad boulevards, the grand old trees and the continental ambience of the French era. Every available public space is a lovingly maintained park. Ancient structures proclaim the antiquity of the place and its civilisation. In the early years of the first century guerilla warfare was invented by two Vietnamese women against Chinese occupiers.

In a tree-dense areas of Hanoi nestles what looks like a Vietnamese speciality, the "Temple of Literature". (There is another Temple of Literature in Hue, central Vietnam). Founded in 1070 this commemorates Vietnam's great men of letters. It is as much a spiritual retreat as a house of learning. Notices greet visitors with instructions such as "Behave in a civilised manner. Please do not swear". The obviously hallowed space was also home to Vietnam's first university, founded in 1076. Oxford, described as the oldest university in the English-speaking world, began developing only in 1167 although there was "evidence of teaching" in Oxford from 1096. The only university older than the Hanoi one is the University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco, functioning from 859.

Hardworking population, pioneering guerilla women, ancient culture, love of scholarship -- perhaps there is nothing surprising in Vietnam becoming the only country in history to defeat America in war. However, modern Vietnam has also developed the telltale habits of modernity. Tourists often fall into traps operated by touts, dubious taxi companies and spurious hotels. Online football betting is a flourishing racket. You need to develop local savvy to ensure that you are not getting adulterated petrol at filling stations. When progress comes, can mafias be far behind?

But the pluses outweigh the minuses. With Vietnam catching up fast, international experts are predicting accelerated growth for the ASEAN region. They say that cross-border integration alone would bring about an open market of 600 million people with economic opportunities worth $ 280 billion to 615 billion by 2030. Benefits from urbanisation and technological advancement will add billions more to annual economic impact. The Look East idea has never made more sense to India than now. Provided we learn.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hong Kong: The Civil Disobedience Movement Looks Like a College Kids' Game. But It's Real Serious

The protest movement in Hong Kong is a modern-day political wonder. Reason one: To demand Western-style democracy in a part of China is plain mad; for lesser audacity vast numbers of people in Tibet and the Muslim area of Uighur have paid dearly. Reason two: Authorities in Beijing have avoided a Tienanmen model crackdown, apparently because a violent interdiction would have undermined business, Hong Kong's lifeblood, and rattled world opinion at a time when Beijing is working towards a world leadership role.

China won't yield an inch to the protestors. But that does not mean that the so-called Occupy movement, also called democracy movement, is a non-event. That it has lasted two months is an achievement in itself. More importantly, it has energised the youth and attracted large segments of the general public, holding up the message that Hong Kong has changed. For a century and a half it had remained a happily docile colony of Britain, firm in its belief that the freedom to make money was the only freedom that mattered. Democracy never bothered either the ruler or the ruled. China actually injected a tiny dose of democracy into this system. Earlier Britain merely nominated a Governor and he ruled as the colony's lord and master.For the election of the next Chief Executive (as Governor is now called) in 2017, China offered universal franchise for all citizens in Hong Kong, a first-ever "reform". The catch was that voters' choice was limited to a panel of two or three names nominated by a China-controlled 1200-member committee. In other words, the right to vote was given to all, but the right to stand as candidate was given to none. It was against this little trick that students took to the streets.

They did so in a unique manner. Despite a skirmish or two, overall it was a disciplined and stylish movement. They did not look like agitators in the first place. They were dressed in city casuals reflecting -- this being Hong Kong -- uptodate international fashion. They were polite with the public. They were meticulous about cleaning the streets they occupied, collecting their garbage in big plastic bags for disposal. They called their protest a civil disobedience movement but emphasised that civil disobedience was not defiance of the rule of law but acceptance of it. Some of the leaders were no older than 17 and 18. Many talked of parents pressurising them to get back to classes. One bright young man with a nattily shaped hair style told this writer that he was returning to his research at Hong Kong University but that didn't mean he was withdrawing from the movement. The University campus was leafy, peaceful and busy as always.

The question is: Why has this new generation of Hong Kong citizens taken on China's mighty power structure when their elders were content to be apolitical until just two decades ago? Basically there are two issues, political and cultural. Politically Hongkongers fear that China is becoming more rigid under President Xi Jinping. He has been neutralising powerful leaders one by one using corruption charges as his weapon. At this rate, would he one day crush the freedoms that Hongkong people have come to take for granted? This antipathy to Xi's China is intensified by the behaviour of visitors from the mainland. Hong Kong's people are for long used to the niceties and adjustments of international living. The mainlanders, as visitors from China are called locally, are crude by comparison, talking loudly in public spaces and behaving without any civic sense. The story of a mainlander mother letting her child do No. 1 in a crowded Metro train is the most discussed folk tale in Hong Kong these days.

The cultural divide goes really deep. Hong Kong's filmmakers say that mainland audiences are difficult and different. Hong Kong's universities, people say, are rated higher than China's thanks to a tradition of intellectual freedom. The new generation in Hong Kong feels that its precious cultural edge would be lost if China takes full control of Hong Kong. They are not alone. The new generation in Taiwan is also embittered by an apparently hardening China. Within the mainland itself the young often revolt but are firmly suppressed. The Chinese-language Apple Daily of Hong Kong, founded in 1995, has been anti-China to the extent of once calling on people to rise in revolt against Beijing. Last week an academic survey revealed that only 8.9 percent of Hongkongers call themselves Chinese. This is a historical shift: not just Tibetans and Uighurs, but Chinese turning against communist China.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Durant blames Britain for India's poverty and misery. True. But why is mass misery still continuing?

Here's something that should rivet Narendra Modi's attention. "Nearly every kind of manufacture or product known to the civilised world -- nearly every kind of creation of man's brain and hand, existing anywhere, and prized either for its utility or beauty -- had long, long been produced in India. India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or than any other in Asia. Her textile goods -- the fine products of her looms, in cotton, wool, linen and silk -- were famous over the civilised world; so were her exquisite jewellery and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, colour and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal -- iron, steel, silver and gold. She had great architecture, equal in beauty to any in the world. She had great engineering works. She had great merchants, great businessmen, great bankers and financiers. Not only was she the greatest shipbuilding nation, but she had great commerce and trade by land and sea which extended to all known civilised countries. Such was the India which the British found when they came".

That's a quotation from a little-known but ought-to-be-widely-known book written 84 years ago: The Case for India by Will Durant (of the 11-volume The Story of Civilisation fame). "Made in India" was the natural slogan of the past. Today we have to plead to "make in India". What explains the wholesale collapse? Will Durant puts the blame squarely on British exploitation of India. Separating the English from the British, he says, "The English are the best gentlemen on earth, the British are the worst of all imperialists". His book marshals evidence to show how extensive was the destruction wrought by the imperialist Britain.

Durant has a way of digging out nuggets of information from extensive research and presenting them with a suddenness that surprises the reader. Casually as it were, he tells us that there were 7000 opium shops in India operated by the British Government, that two to four hundred thousand acres of India's soil were given away to the growing of opium. On Gandhi: "In his first year in England he read 80 books on Christianity".

His account of the levels of poverty that prevailed in India is perhaps the most disturbing. While Britain stole enough wealth from India to make the Industrial Revolution possible, the percentage of taxes as related to the gross produce was more in India than in any other country. Famine became a feature of Indian life. As many as 15 million people died in the famines of 1877, 1889, 1897 and 1900. (A bigger one was to come after Durant's visit when the British took away all the foodgrains they could get from India as supplies to World War II).

There is a doomsday echo to Durant's words: "The British ownership of India has been a calamity and a crime. This is quite unlike the Mohammedan domination: those invaders came to stay; what they took in taxes and tribute they spent in India, developing its industries and resources, adorning its literature and art... [Under British rule] I saw a people -- one-fifth of the human race -- suffering poverty and oppression bitterer than any to be found elsewhere on the earth. I was horrified. I had not thought it possible that any government could allow its subjects to sink to such misery". That last point seems applicable to successive governments after independence as well. The misery of vast sections of people in the slums, on the banks of polluted water bodies, in unplanned urban beehives ever waiting for catastrophes would horrify Durant if he were to visit us again.

An oddity in the narrative provides an ironic link to today's ultra-nationalists who say that all Indians are Hindus. They are, of course, in a geographic sense -- as inheritors of the Sindhu (Indus) valley civilisation. The word has since become wholly religious, as distinct from geographical, so much so that Durant sounds outdated or eccentric when he talks of Hindu industries vs British industries, there being not one Hindu in the Railway Board of those days, third-class passengers in trains being Hindus and Gandhi being the leader of 320 million Hindus. Narendra Modi would never claim to be, or want to be, the leader of 1.1 billion Hindus. He wants to be the leader of 1.1 billion Indians. Which underlines why the two words are not interchangeable.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A wide gap yawns between the BJP and the Congress. It's called the decline & fall of the Communists

In the midst of all the churnings that are transforming India's political space, no one is talking about the communist parties. Obviously no one cares. The decline and fall of this once promising movement has been so steady and so foreseeable that they present a sad chapter in history. In a situation where the Congress was detested and the BJP was distrusted, it was no small achievement for the Left to reduce itself from 60 seats in Parliament to 12. The CPI-M leaders were forced to admit that they had failed to "modernise the party's ideology".

The communist parties in other countries changed with the times and in keeping with the genius of each country. China is the best example. They began as professed Marxists, then expanded to Marxism-Leninism, finally ending up with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. The Chinese Communists specifically kept Stalinism at arm's length because they saw Stalinism as too Russia-centric. Which was true.

Indian communists missed that point and embraced Stalinism with doctrinaire fidelity. Unlike the Chinese, they never thought of communism with Indian characteristics. The result was that the middle class and intellectual types who were attracted by the idealism of social equality gradually moved away. One of India's most respected communist intellectuals, Mohit Sen, provided a rare insight into the price India's Left movement paid for its fascination with Stalinism. Saying that "dogmatism, sectarianism and inhumanity were at least as much a part of Stalin as Leninism", he pointed out: "While Lenin and Leninism triumphed when they were most themselves, the triumphs associated with Stalin occurred when those actually leading such parties disobeyed him and returned to Lenin". Sen cites this disobedience as the reason for the victory of the Chinese, Yugoslav and Vietnamese parties as well as for the "spectacular advance" of the Italian and French communist parties.

Actually Mohit Sen's A Traveller and The Road should be prescribed reading for India's remaining comrades. Lenin, he says, understood the strength and positive nature of nationalism while being aware, also, of the menace of nationalism degenerating into chauvinism."In India the Communists were patriots... but they were not nationalists. They did not know India". Sen rejects Mao's policy of sinicising Marxism, arguing that the right thing was to be Communist and Chinese. "Ho Chi Minh achieved this. So did P.C.Joshi and S.A.Dange". But the Joshis and Danges were denounced. In the process, the CPI-M and CPI became mutually hating parties.

In due course power did to the Communists what it does to all parties: It corrupted them. Comrade ministers and party bosses in West Bengal and Kerala became votaries of the good life. Worse, the CPI-M's name got tried up -- rightly or wrongly is a different issue -- with politics of violence. When current Party Secretary Prakash Karat made peace overtures to the breakaway group SUCI (Socialist Unity Centre of India), the latter's published reaction was that 161 SUCI workers had been murdered during the Left Front rule in West Bengal. In Kerala the public associates the "Kannur Lobby" of the party with the murder of several dissenters. Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned party cadres have left, many of them to join the BJP's inviting pastures in a kind of reverse cultural revolution.

Admitting the setback the party has suffered, CPI-M leadership said: "The next party congress is coming up in April 2015. By then we will have a crystal-clear idea of what should be our line of action". Reports are already out suggesting that the line of action will be to protect the leadership from blame for the party's decline. There will be no commonsense line because the leadership consists of academics and theoreticians, not people with grassroots involvement in people's problems. What is needed is a recognition of the ground realities that have developed in India in the last couple of decades. An aspirational generation has emerged with middleclass dreams of peace and economic opportunities. Only a modernist leadership that will identify itself with this new India can have any relevance.

Gapingly vacant is the space between the rightwing BJP and the reactionary Congress (reactionary because it still swears by the dynastic principle of power). The communist parties have failed to fill this space because they have not progressed beyond the 1950s-1960s. Perhaps the term "communist" itself has been overtaken by time. Europe's idea of Social Democrats may be more in tune with the modern world. India's misfortune is that from the ranks of those who profess socialism not one Deng Hsiao-ping has emerged.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Modi's popularity & power are re-inforced. How will he use them to conquer the challenges facing him?

Now that the festival of lights and fireworks is behind us (with a bonus ban on Chinese crackers), we can return to our customary festival of political fireworks. The excitement produced by the Assembly election results is yet to die down although Maharashtra has a semblance of unity after tortuous oneupmanship games. It was yet another Narendra Modi triumph, no doubt about that. For the rest, what we see is a maze of interpretations, explanations and anticipations. Ploughing through this labyrinth, we can see at least six lines of thought. Take your pick.

The era of coalitions is over and so is the relevance of regional parties, say BJP circles emboldened by the party going solo and doing well. But this is a premature claim. In Maharashtra a tactical understanding amounting to a coalition became necessary so that the BJP could proceed towards forming a government. Haryana got an all-BJP government, but a completely local party, the INLD, won enough seats to become the main opposition. This in spite of the INLD being a decrepit party steeped in corruption and with its top leaders in jail.

Ideology has nothing to do with the rise of the BJP or the fall of the other parties. The BJP did well because of people's disgust with the dynastic Congress and the popular oratory of Narendra Modi that offered the promise of a change. The strong Modi personality towered over the feebleness of Sonia Gandhi and her son. Rahul Gandhi's proven incompetence is finally provoking several Congressmen to criticise the leadership openly.

Modi is the winner rather than the BJP. The party won spectacularly in the elections in which he campaigned, and fared badly in the state byelections in which he did not campaign. No one in the BJP can win votes the way Modi can. This uniqueness must be seen in tandem with Modi's tendency to to be the pivot around which power revolves. Even cabinet ministers do not take decisions on their own or speak out of turn. This can be a good thing from the governance angle, but it is in the tradition of the banyan tree under which no grass grows.

The Modi style of control worked well in Gujarat, but can it be equally effective in the bewilderingly diverse landmass that is India? The dissensions within the party over the Maharashtra chief minster's post were an indication of power lust afflicting BJP leaders as much as other party leaders. Eventually of course Narendra Modi's word prevails. How is this different from Sonia Gandhi's word prevailing over infighting Congressmen?

There is general agreement that the Congress is finished and will remain finished for a while. It will remain finished because it still does not try to escape from the curse of dynastic control. The current thinking is that Priyanka Gandhi will save the party. She won't. She might in fact bring further ignominy to the party with her husband entangled in scandals that can turn, to put it mildly, inconvenient. This does not mean that the BJP can achieve what it calls a Congress-eradicated India. That means in effect an opposition-eradicated India which would be disastrous. Besides, the old party has, especially at the younger levels, a great deal of talent, clean and capable. Someday somehow they will have to come out of the dynastic stranglehold and make something of themselves -- and of their party and their country.

Perhaps the most important sentiment that has emerged is hope. There is a perceptible feeling that Modi has re-invented himself yet again and is trying genuinely to become acceptable to all. He is known to isolate the hardliners in his own party if they interfere with his policy ideas. But then hardliners are an easy problem compared to corruption. Modi's corruption-free image is his greatest asset, but his party has been anything but corruption-free. The initial willingness to make a deal in Maharashtra with the NCP, a den of corruption at the top, was indicative of a tolerant attitude to the corrupt for political bargaining.

Modi can afford to rise above such short-term tactics because he has a popularity rating higher than that of any living politician in the country. The question is, will he use it to conquer the challenge of corruption? Modi has more power than any Prime Minister before him, not excluding Indira Gandhi and he has the will to use it. The question is, will he use it to conquer the politics of polarisation? The nation waits.